Acid-sensing ion channels (ASICs) respond to changes in pH in the central and peripheral nervous systems and participate in synaptic plasticity and pain perception. Understanding the proton-mediated gating mechanism remains elusive despite the of their structures in various conformational states. We report here that R64, an arginine located in the outer segment of the first transmembrane domain of all three isoforms of mammalian ASICs, markedly impacts the apparent proton affinity of activation and the degree of desensitization from the open and preopen states. Rosetta calculations of free energy changes predict that substitutions of R64 in hASIC1a by aromatic residues destabilize the closed conformation while stabilizing the open conformation. Accordingly, F64 enhances the efficacy of proton-mediated gating of hASIC1a, which increases the apparent pH50 and facilitates channel opening when only one or two subunits are activated. F64 also lengthens the duration of opening events, thus keeping channels open for extended periods of time and diminishing low pH-induced desensitization. Our results indicate that activation of a proton sensor(s) with pH50 equal to or greater than pH 7.2–7.1 opens F64hASIC1a, whereas it induces steady-state desensitization in wildtype channels due to the high energy of activation imposed by R64, which prevents opening of the pore. Together, these findings suggest that activation of a high-affinity proton-sensor(s) and a common gating mechanism may mediate the processes of activation and steady-state desensitization of hASIC1a.

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